“The Last Ship” sets sail in Chicago on its way to a Broadway launch in October, filled with all the hope and heartache and working class nobility of a lush, lovely original score from Sting. The setting of this highly personal show is Sting’s own hometown of Wallsend in Newcastle, where generations of men worked building giant ships before the shipyard shut down. In many moments, the production provides rare pleasures: the musical as deep, personal artistic expression. But the entwined narratives of a love triangle and an ill-defined crusade to build one last ship never cohere into a satisfying whole. Right now, the show poses an interesting question to those beyond loyal Sting fans: Do you want to live for two-and-a-half hours in a beautifully sad song?
In the first of the two narrative strands, there are the shipbuilders, led by Jackie White (the extraordinary Jimmy Nail, personifying blue-collar dignity), the former foreman at the recently sold and shut-down shipyard, who, urged on by the dying local priest (Fred Applegate) and Jackie’s wife (Sally Ann Triplett), agrees to lead the builders on a takeover of the yard with the intention of building one last ship. Sting invests this storyline with stirring group songs, none more moving than “Shipyard,” in which they express the pride they’ve taken in building giant useful objects and the emptiness that comes with the shipyard’s closure.
Then there’s the love story — a Sting musical must have those silky-toned love songs, after all — that centers on Gideon (Michael Esper), a prodigal son who returns following his father’s death with hopes of reclaiming the girl he abandoned to reject his dad and the shipyard fifteen years earlier. Meg (Rachel Tucker) now has a fifteen-year-old son (go ahead, do the math) named Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and a responsible, loyal wannabe-husband Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who serves double duty as a temporary obstacle to the shipbuilders by encouraging the men to embrace the future: scrap metal.
The first third of the show unfolds ideally. Characters introduce themselves with confident songs, rich in personality and situation and emotion. Some songs have strains of “The Threepenny Opera,” a musical in which Sting starred on Broadway decades ago.
But towards the end of the first act, the narrative wind begins to fade and “The Last Ship” floats one way and then another. Book writer John Logan (following Brian Yorkey, who is also credited) is a fine craftsman, but capable patching is still patching. The show currently works as a collection of songs in search of a complete story, or perhaps as a concept album –- filled with mood and emotion and character and sensibility, but swaying as it takes on specifics.
What seems to be missing is a driving conflict. Musicals with similar settings and themes — all based on British indie films — have placed a focus on questions of masculinity. In “The Fully Monty,” the unemployed working class men put on a strip show. In “Billy Elliot,” a son of the striking working class battles Dad to embrace his dream of dancing. And, most recently, in “Kinky Boots,” the potentially unemployed working class went from crafting staid shoes to footwear for drag queens. The conflicts are both external and internal. The point is not the masculine identity crises — although in each case that clash and the showy settings also gave natural life to the choreography, which is consistently stilted and awkward here. But economic insecurity activated personal dilemmas, and the overarching story and the personal tales connected convincingly around a need for change.
That’s not the case here. The building of the ship is not an embrace of change but a show of resistance, and Arthur’s claim that it won’t make a bit of difference in saving the shipyard rings decidedly true. It’s a symbolic gesture, vague, abstract and futile. Logan is forced to load the vessel with characters’ personal meaning, which leads to some well-written but oddly sudden sequences where new issues emerge late.
The show also doesn’t take advantage of the visual possibilities of the ship. Director Joe Mantello’s production is very modest in scale, and one can easily understand the economic considerations that prevented creating a spectacle. But this is where greater theatrical creativity is required. It says a lot about the current show that its titular ship, central to the story as both goal and metaphor, appears only glancingly; the projections we see during the show and even the final launch of the ship don’t make much of an impression. There’s something missing at the core here.
There are similar challenges with the love story. Meg is really the key figure — she’s the one with the choice to make — and the terrific Tucker shines whenever given the opportunity. But her solos come only upfront, and Arthur (despite an excellent Lazar) only gets to repeat his pleading (but oh-so-lovely) proposal song “What Say You, Meg?”
So, we’re left with Gideon, a complex figure to be sure, frequently compelling in Esper’s playing. But the role is ultimately a figure defined by negatives: He left the village not to pursue something but to run away, and it’s never clear exactly what he imagines the future to be, with or without Meg. Aimless, he’s difficult to root for. There is plenty of room for changes here, but it’s not easy to find a way to create a sympathetic interest and an uplifting story, and then pair them with a mature perspective on romantic versus lasting love, which is at the heart of the songs.
In some ways, the least dour part of the love story emanates from Kelly-Sordelet’s Tom. The young actor has range and can harmonize stunningly. If Sting created Gideon as his alter-ego, he would be well-advised now to pour a few dreams into Gideon’s son Tom, who seems to be in almost every scene without being the true center of any. It might not solve the issues of this musically beautiful, frequently moving, compellingly performed but still wayward show. But it sure would help if Sting gave the boy a song of his own.